The Last Savoy

Our stay in São Martinho has come to an end. Today we move to the Savoy Next hotel near Funchal harbour for 2 weeks that we hope will feel like a luxury holiday rather than a custodial sentence. It will turn out to be all of this, and yet less.


Our arrival is notable for the wrong reasons. Our taxi, overloaded with baggage reminiscent of some expedition from the Grand Tour era, is flagged down in the harbour by a police officer who explains that the final leg of our journey is closed due to a classic car event. Despite protestations we are dumped at the foot of a steep hill with 60kg of luggage and no alternative but to lug everything step by step up hill in the heat of the morning to the bemusement of baseball capped tourists.

Funchal Harbour

Our dishevelled arrival at the Savoy could only have been more humiliating were a piglet or hen to break free from one of the bags. Fortunately they stayed still and kept quiet during the check-in process. I should go easy on myself. It will turn out that our expectation of superior quality accommodation, sea views and access to a pool area will be tempered by a reality yet to reveal itself.

This looks promising

Our self-catering studio is a marvel of compact refinement, with the emphasis on compact. The balcony enjoys incredible views out over the pool area and to the sea. To our left we can see the end of the harbour with a glimpse of the latest docked behemoth. To the right the outline of Reids, a rapidly efficient way to dispose of your wealth for the sake of being able to tell friends you have spent a few nights in Madeira’s most famous hotel.

Spying on the visitors

We soon come to comprehend what the Savoy marketing team describe as “relaxed ambience”. It starts in reception with a loud loop of soulless muzak that needlessly imposes itself. The management team are slapping themselves on the back somewhere thinking they are creating appeal for a younger clientele. Meanwhile the large comfortable reception area that they have specifically marketed to young and/or affluent Digital Nomads remains empty because who wants to work in a noisy environment.

Great views from the balcony. Shame about the sounds.

The music continues to be piped loudly into corridors, most likely seeping into the rooms. We escape this Guantanamo level discomfort in our studio across the road but the hotel has found plenty of other ways to steal our peace. First there’s the hob extractor fan that does not turn off and disturbs our sleep. We keep complaining and they keep fixing it but the noise always returns. Then there’s the oh-so-clever lighting array controlled by an escape-room level of puzzle solving complexity. When you finally work out how to turn all the lights on you are still stumbling around in relaxed ambience x-files levels of gloom. On two occasions the lights just turn themselves on in the night and wake us up. Because reasons.

Beer out of a Saxophone – On brand for the Savoy

And there’s more. We specifically requested the top floor to minimise potential noise disruption from other guests – who were fine. Less fine was being kept awake half the night by a private karaoke party booked at the hotel poolside bar. Yes, the hotel management actively decided to prioritise a few hundred euros for a private event at the cost of annoying guests collectively spending thousands for their stays. They also, inexplicably, managed to ruin the poolside experience for guests during the daytime, by taking the relaxing ingredients of sun, fabulous sea views and comfortable chill-out beds and adding that same looped muzak all day long. Relaxed ambience. Also known as weapons grade incompetence. A lesson in how to trash your brand.


OK, thanks for bearing with me while I got that out of my system. It would be churlish not to mention some of the good points of the Savoy. One high point, literally, was the rooftop terrace bar. On Saturday nights it hosts the weekly Nomad meet-up where exotic creatures from around the world (albeit mostly Berlin) come to exchange stories of adventure, hope and fascination. I seemed to be the only one taking a second to enjoy the views.

Nomads – serve cocktails and they will come

Credit also to the pool terrace, at least the part furthest away from the bar muzak. We never actually swam in the pool, instead jumping into the sea because it was warmer. After emerging from the brine I baked myself dry on a sun bed and reminded myself it was December and I really shouldn’t be able to do any of this.

Not bad for a work week in December

The hotel does open up new possibilities for us due to its location. The tranquil beauty of Santa Catarina Park is just a short walk away. It becomes one of my favourite places. In a city of sights on an island made for instagram it stands out for its breathtaking views across the harbour, into the distant hills or simply across the pretty lake where you can sit in the shade a world away from the noise and pollution of Estrada Monumental.

Santa Catarina Park

The harbour provides a portal into another world as major cruise liners come and go like debutantes at the royal ball. Amidst the supersized hulls you can often see paddle boarders, kayakers or a flotilla of dinghies from the sailing club. This is a harbour for everyone. Especially if your name is Cristiano Ronaldo. His sprawling family home sits at the foot of the hill up to the Savoy. The inner harbour, a few hundred metres away, is defined by his CR7 museum where there is always a line of people queuing up for a photo next to his bronze statue.

Golden Balls, in a rare upright pose

When you are staying in central Funchal it is impossible not to become slightly obsessed with the comings and goings of the cruise ships. Arrival or departure is generally heralded with three long blasts on the ships horn. Most of the arrivals are regulars, like the TUI or German Mein Shiff fleets which shuttle in from the Canaries each week. A less regular boat like the Azamara Journey tends to cause a stir so you can imagine the excitement when the Queen Elizabeth floats into harbour after a 10 year absence. For all of her standing she really looks extremely dated when compared to some of the other ships in town.

Look who’s back

It can be easy to forget the extreme physical nature of Madeira when you are sat working or gazing out at the sea from the balcony. It is a volcanic sea mount situated 500 miles off the coast of Africa, rising an astonishing 4km up from the sea bed and then a further 2km to the mountain peaks. It depends heavily on outside goods and you are only ever a storm away from shortages.

No zoom background required for this meeting

In this case the weather prevents the Funchalese supply ship from mooring and some shops soon run short of a few supplies. I can at least be assured that, in the worst case, there will be no shortage of the home-produced oranges, honey and rum required to make the island’s signature Poncha cocktail. Panic over.


When the morning light comes, I’m back out watching the surf whump into the harbour walls. We can just about see the Porto Santo ferry moored up safely. All ship movements have been postponed today for obvious safety reasons and it is sobering to think that in previous years the waves have been known to throw surf right over those massive harbour walls.

Getting tasty out there

The winter squall hits us as our Savoy stay comes to an end. I have been secretly hoping for some rough weather and so it’s thrilling to be woken at night by flashes of lightning and the pelt of rain against the pool outside. We stand together in silence on our balcony at 3am in a dark salty mist just absorbing the energy of the storm.

A stormy send-off

Our two weeks are up. With pig and hen corralled into hand luggage we drag our wooden chests through the aural assault course of reception and await a taxi to our Christmas digs. The rain has abated and the sun is out. There’s no hint of the storm battering the other side of the building, just the ghostly wailings of a deceased ambient musician stuck in limbo between this world and the next for all eternity.

So long Savoy. We’ll be back once you grow up.

Madeira – Garden of Eden

Madeirans love a festival

Why haven’t I written about Madeira before now? Probably the same reason I haven’t written any blogs for a long while – I’m now a farmer (see all the allotment posts). Better late than never, which also describes my feelings about not having visited Madeira until relatively recently.

Craggy Island
Craggy Island

This rocky island is the summit of a dormant volcano poking out from the Atlantic off the west coast of Africa. If you haven’t visited this Portuguese outpost you will probably be aware of the wine and cake bearing its name. So far so good but there’s more. So much more that it passes the test of one of the (few) places on my travels that I could happily live in under different circumstances, such as a lottery win or bank heist. Let me elaborate …

Getting there

This may prove your major obstacle. The airport runway has been dramatically extended into the sea in recent years but that hasn’t solved the problem of cross winds.

Garden airport
Garden airport

My inbound flight was unable to land due to high wind speeds and after instead touching down on the neighbouring rock of Porto Santo the flight was eventually diverted to Tenerife where the passengers had to spend a night before the journey could be completed the next day. This sort of thing is happening a lot and it’s a real blight on the islands substantial tourist industry.

Climate and Topology

Once you are there you can enjoy fabulous mild to hottish temperatures all year-round – great if you want to sit on the beach. Except there aren’t any beaches of note. Recently some homes have been lost to wild fires and storms that have flooded some coastal areas washing people out to sea. Still want to come?

Mild & sunny in Funchal
Mild & sunny in Funchal

Madeira boasts a remarkable landscape and has been described as Little Switzerland, which really doesn’t do it justice. There is barely a flat surface on the island. It rises as cliffs from the sea up to heady peaks that look down into vertigo inducing valleys. You can be basking in the sun in the coastal capital Funchal at the same time somebody is trying to peer through the mist in mountains just a few miles away.

Above the clouds
Above the clouds

The North of the island could pass for the Scottish Highlands with sturdy cattle grazing the verdant rocky hillside.

The interior - lush and humid
The interior – lush and humid

Until relatively recently the many villages and small towns on the island were connected tenuously by a crude system of roads and tunnels that effectively discouraged travel.

How it used to be
How it used to be

Today you can travel around and through the landscape with great efficiency due to an astonishing number of modern EU funded tunnels and bridges that have transformed life on the island and made exploring Madeira a joy.

The new road system
The new road system

The toy town road system has only partially domesticated travel. Rock falls are a frequent occurrence and my own travel plans have been scuppered by closed mountain routes. Furthermore the very steep narrow roads of the capital Funchal will leave nervous drivers needing a glass of Madeira or two. Another pitfall awaits if you fail to appreciate the fuel demands on a car mercilessly flogged up hairpin roads for 45 minutes. When the fuel gauge on my rental hit zero I was able to coast downhill for 25 minutes to the nearest fuel station using nothing but the brake pedal.

Flora

If I had to choose one thing that makes Madeira a must-visit island it would be the truly astounding array of plant life that thrives in this environment. There are a number of popular gardens you can visit in Funchal but there’s really no need. The average roadside verge may well provide home to the sort of exotic plant life that you would pay to see at home.

A typical Madeiran flower stall
A typical Madeiran flower stall

Madeirans take great pride in their gardens and a walk of the streets will reward you with an abundance of front garden colour and more species of Orchid than you knew existed.

Stunning flora
Stunning flora

It is perhaps because of the isolated history of Madeiran communities that the people here have learned to be very self-sufficient. A high proportion of residents grow their own produce. The volcanic soil is rich in nutrients for growing and the climate is great, which just leaves the need for water.

Even the steepest slopes are terraced for agriculture
Even the steepest slopes are terraced for agriculture

And that leads to another remarkable Madeiran tale. A vast network of water channels called levadas has been constructed over the years to bring water from the mountains down to the communities.

Levadas for irrigation and walking
Levadas for irrigation and walking

The closest parallel to UK agriculture would be the endless pattern of dry stone walling hand-built and maintained by farmers over generations. Today the levada network draw a considerable numbers of tourists who come to walk the paths alongside the Levadas. I’ve walked a couple myself and these utilitarian paths traverse parts of the dramatic interior that would otherwise be inaccessible to the public.

Food and Drink

I don’t write about a place without mentioning food, usually in too much detail. It goes without saying that the produce grown in this garden of Eden contribute to fabulous cuisine but this is overshadowed by the seafood. Supermarket fish counters groan under the weight of species we can only dream of in the UK, although that doesn’t explain why the islands of Great Britain offer such an impoverished selection of fish to consumers.

Grilled limpets - simply exquisite
Grilled limpets – simply exquisite

Specialities here include the vicious looking Espada – a prehistoric fish caught at great depth which looks less threatening on the BBQ, and limpets grilled in butter and garlic. They are to die for!

Espada being prepared at the timeless Mercado dos Lavradores
Espada being prepared at the timeless Mercado dos Lavradores

The legendary Mercado dos Lavradores fish market in Funchal has long attracted more tourists than serious shoppers due to its enticing displays of fresh Espada. As a side note I recently read a 1970’s National Geographic featuring Madeira which included a picture of the fish market. It hasn’t changed one bit in 40 years.

Every day is a seafood day
Every day is a seafood day

Many tourists travel home with a bottle or three of Madeira wine. It’s great. Then there’s the madeira cake. It’s not great. That’s just my experience.

Life and all that

Life in the populous capital of Funchal is doubtless a little different to that in an isolated hillside village but there are some universalities. This is a low-rise island. People have gardens and grow things. There appears to be is a cohesive social infrastructure. All good things. As a tourist I particularly like the numerous quinta that are available to rent. A typical quinta is a grand colonial era villa with impressive dimensions and a thriving garden.

Grand designs
Grand designs

I would heartily recommend you seek out a quinta ahead of some sterile hotel half way up the hillside. Nothing beats drawing open curtains in the morning and walking onto the balcony to smell the intoxicating aroma of hibiscus and see the sun beaming off the sea. My quinta had the bonus of a banana tree which thoughtfully deposited breakfast onto a sun bed each morning.

Manna from heaven
Manna from heaven

I took to reading an English-speaking news blog throughout my stay and it was full of the domestic issues we might have at home albeit on a smaller scale. Traffic jams in the capital resulting in just 10 minute delays – yes please! As a tourist you can dodge all this by staying in bed a little longer or delegating responsibility to the excellent bus service. Don’t get the wrong impression – life here seems to run at a mercifully slower pace than in mainland cities.

Flower Festival
Flower Festival

Madeira hosts its fair share of festivals including the appropriately named Atlantic Festival. I arrived at the end of a Flower festival which was spectacular if not a little gratuitous on an island that is effectively home to a year-round flower festival.

Madeirans love a festival
Madeirans love a festival

Each village seems to host some festival of its own such as the lemon festival that I attended. It was just lemons.

Tourism

Even when the flights are disrupted a steady stream of huge cruise ships dock in the harbour at Funchal. There’s a port-side area of Funchal that seems to be geared up for bewildered folk who wander in from their ship, sit in the first tourist restaurant they find, buy some Madeira wine and then drop by Starbucks before returning to their vessels for the night.

Sailing into Funchal
Sailing into Funchal

Madeira – tick. I guess they generate some tourist income but that’s the equivalent of travelling to the UK and just visiting Stratford Upon Avon. You’ll leave without much authentic experience of an island drowning in authenticity and individuality.

Nothing to see here
Nothing to see here

One such icon of Madeiran individuality is the Monte toboggan run – a bizarre rapid descent of Funchal’s steep roads while seated on a wicker sofa being “driven” by sturdily shoed gondolier types. It makes little more sense when you see it first hand but it does look like fun. This all takes place on the public highway and the only thing preventing a collision with cars at junctions is a potentially intoxicated marshal wearing high vis.

Just a 15mph sofa
Just a 15mph sofa

A couple of weeks after I returned home there was a news article about one of the toboggans careering into a parked car and injuring the incumbents. You just know their insurance isn’t going to cover that.

Celebrating a proud heritage
Celebrating a proud heritage

I can’t finish without mentioning Madeira’s most famous son Christiano Ronaldo. CR7 (as he has been branded) is omnipresent within these shores. There is not only a statue (obviously) but an entire Christian Ronaldo museum. I haven’t been but I imagine a series of wax works all in various horizontal states – lying down, rolling around, waving imaginary wax red cards, etc.

Branded bear
Tourist Cr7p

I hope to have painted a picture of Madeira, although it feels like I have hardly scratched the surface. There can be nowhere else like it on the planet. This remote outpost of Europe packs so much into such a small space and has so much to call its own. If travel is about experience then there can be nowhere finer to visit than Madeira. Just so long as your plane is able to land…